By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
HOLLY POND —
December 27 was supposed to be the day Lexy Malone showed her old team, Tanner, just how much better of a basketball player she had become since moving to a new school.
With the Rattlers in the stands at the Tom Drake Coliseum, it was supposed to be a day that saw the Holly Pond forward celebrating a hard-earned win over Walker in the first day of the Yule Tide Classic.
What Dec. 27 was never supposed to be was Malone’s last day of her competitive prep basketball career.
That's unfortunately what it turned out to be, however, when the 5-foot-10 Bronco landed awkwardly on her right knee after pulling down a rebound in the second quarter. As she crumpled to the floor and began yelling out in pain, Malone could immediately tell her ACL was torn — but only because she had suffered an eerily similar injury to her other leg nearly one year to the day prior, bringing her junior campaign to a screeching halt. Here it was happening again to Malone in her senior season, and this time, she knew there'd be no coming back.
“The first thing that came to my mind is I’m not going to be able to play the rest of the season,” Malone said. “I knew everything was going to end right there because I don’t have another season.”
The shining student-athlete who lives to play basketball and softball was understandably crushed at this realization, as were her teammates, her coach and the entire Holly Pond community. Despite the devastating injury, though, there was still basketball to be played for the Broncos, and with one of the squad’s starters out for the season, the Green and White needed someone to fill Malone’s shoes.
Enter Rachel Finley.
The junior, who had previously been Holly Pond’s first option off the bench, was initially overwhelmed by her increased role. What made the process even more difficult was the friendship she shared with the player she was expected to replace.
“I just knew that a lot was going to be expected of me,” Finley said. “I knew I was going to have to step up and fill the role. It was really hard because I really love Lexy, and I know she loves the game. I didn’t want to let her down. It made me step up more.”
After a tentative, nerve-racking transition into the starting rotation, Finley slowly but surely came into her own on the basketball court, easily proving she deserved the spot with timely 3-pointers and a superb effort as a back-side defender in the post. Her contributions have undoubtedly been valuable in the Broncos’ magical run to the Class 3A girls state championship game, which will be played today versus Lauderdale County at 9 a.m. in Birmingham.
“It’s living the dream really,” Finley said of reaching the title tilt with her teammates. “I don’t know what to say because it’s a huge blessing.”
Finley said she finally started to feel comfortable during a stretch of home games where Holly Pond dominated a majority of its opponents.
“That kind of settled it,” she said. “It was a I-knew-it-was-going-to-be-OK type of deal.”
Before Finley was well on her way to becoming an every-game contributor, coach Scott Adams recalled a heart-to-heart conversation he had with the Bronco. Without wanting to divulge too much information about the encounter, the coach said Finley had become emotional and expressed she was struggling because she felt so guilty Malone wasn’t able to play the game she had battled so hard to return to just one year before.
“Not only was she feeling awful for Lexy, she was feeling pressure she had to do what Lexy was doing,” Adams said. “But when she finally just decided to be Rachel, she started really playing well, and she has played extremely well for us.”
Malone and Finley were already friends before the injury, but after learning of Adams’ and Finley’s talk, there were no doubts about it for Malone.
“That just made our relationship really close because I knew she cared so much about, and I care so much about her,” Malone said.
Knee brace and all, Malone has faithfully sat on the bench during Holly Pond games the entire season since Dec. 27. She wore street clothes for most of those contests but has worked hard enough in the rehabilitation process to suit up for five of the Broncos’ six postseason games.
In each instance, Adams has substituted her in late in the fourth quarter once a Holly Pond victory was already assured. The occasions are bittersweet for Malone but special all the same considering the team’s other reserve players try their hardest to put her in a position to shoot or touch the ball at least once.
“Everybody has supported me so much,” Malone said. “They know it’s my senior year, and they just try to make it special for me even though I can’t play the whole game.”
Of all five appearances Malone has had the pleasure of making throughout the playoffs, none could ever top the Broncos’ 67-39 sub-region home victory against Geraldine. With only five seconds remaining, Kristen Sparks raced down the court, dished the ball to Lacy Malone, who then passed it to her sister, Lexy, at the 3-point line.
From there, Lexy Malone, who admitted to usually being a bit of an overthinker, calmly released the shot, only to watch it fall through the basket as time expired. Her teammates went wild, the crowd erupted, and for one moment, Malone was able to forget about her ACL tear and once again experience the thrill of being a basketball player for the Green and White.
Adams could only describe the buzzer-beating play as “a God thing.”
“I’m not saying God is interested so much in a basketball game, but he’s interested in the people that are in it,” the coach said. “How do you explain that on a last-second shot, her sister passes her the ball right in front of her home stand, right in front of her team bench?
“She was more likely to miss that than make it. I just think that God had a hand in that. I really do. It was magical.”
If Malone is fortunate enough to play in a sixth consecutive game today, she’ll be fully aware that Holly Pond is on its way to its first state title in school history.
“That would be great,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to play them (Lauderdale County) last year. If I go in this year, I’ll know that we just won a state championship. That would be amazing to even get to play on the court.”
After graduation in May, Malone plans to enroll in summer classes at Wallace State with hopes of one day working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant. No matter where the world takes Malone, the Broncos will forever hold a special place in her heart.
“I’m just glad that I moved to Holly Pond because I’m surrounded by great people who love God,” she said. “I have the best coach, the best team and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.